Do higher test scores mean higher intelligence?

We score much higher on intelligence scores now than our grandparents. Does that mean we're smarter, or is it something else? (Public domain photo via Unsplash.com)

We score much higher on intelligence scores now than our grandparents. Does that mean we’re smarter, or is it something else? (Public domain photo via Unsplash.com)

As an eighth grader, I was part of a program where I took the SAT test. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I gave it a shot.

Then the results arrived.

I wasn’t totally sure what the scores meant as an eighth grader, but it all became clearer when my mom saw them.

“I think that was my score when I was in high school,” she said. We checked and verified it — I scored the exact same as an eighth grader as my mom when she was a junior in high school.

I was feeling pretty good about myself until we started talking about it. We rationalized that the test must have changed since then. Students learn more complex material earlier on. After that, I didn’t feel like quite the Einstein I thought I was!

Turns out, there’s research evidence to back this up. I recently heard James Flynn’s TED Talk and there’s a phenomenon — called the Flynn effect — that we’re “smarter” than our grandparents. Well, our test scores are largely higher than theirs, at least — since the 1930s to be specific.

How is this? We’re all still humans, right? What has changed so drastically?

There are many hypotheses. One: Students are more familiar with the test-taking process and have an advantage. They’re constantly taking tests, and the act of test-taking is a skill that’s more developed in students these days.

Another: Work and school are more cognitively complex today than they were decades and decades ago. Manual labor was more common in the 1930s. Today, doctors, lawyers, software engineers and other cognitively complex jobs make up a significant part of the workforce.

Regardless, the numbers show that something is changing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re smarter, said Ulric Neisser, deemed the “father of cognitive psychology.”

Test scores are certainly going up all over the world, but whether intelligence itself has risen remains controversial,” Neisser said.

So, what does this mean in the classroom? We can draw plenty of conclusions here, but this is the one I keep coming back to.

Simple information is no longer at a premium. We can’t just be brokers of facts and details. The world just doesn’t value that as much anymore. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t learn facts anymore; knowing nothing and Googling everything you need is inefficient and no way to live. (Especially if your cell phone battery dies.)

What matters is what we do with information. I think one of the key ways we can do this is to focus on asking good questions or — maybe even more important — helping students find the questions that really drive them. If students are passionate about tracking down a solution to a problem that really intrigues them, they’re more equipped than ever to make it happen.

The bottom line, though, is this — education can’t be the same today as it was in the 1930s. The world has changed. We have limitless information and access to people whenever we want.

If we continue to teach as we did in the 1930s, we’re robbing students of a bright future that won’t look anything like today.

[reminder]What does the Flynn effect mean to you? What do you think causes it? What impact should it have on schools?[/reminder]

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